The parsley family presents a formidable challenge for the urban forager. As a large family of typically aromatic plants, it contains many herbs such as cilantro, fennel, and lovage – all of which complement and enhance routine culinary experiences. Yet, nefarious members like hemlock (Conium spp.) or water hemlock (Cicuta spp.) contain powerful neurotoxins that can be deadly even in small doses. In Berlin, a cursory look around any green area is likely to yield a member of the parsely family – its distinguishing umbels being an easy tell-tale sign. However, for the inexperienced (and sometimes experienced) observer, the exact determination of the species can be difficult. In fact, proponents of cautious foraging philosophies often do away with the whole family, but instead of excessive caution we believe that better plant identification skills are warranted. In practice, this means relying on an established botanical key which unfortunately is a lot more work than simply performing a Google image search, or flipping through less detailed foraging books. (For Germany, we recommend the Schmeil-Fitschen botanical key Flora von Deutschland und angrenzender Länder.)
Keeping the above in mind, today we briefly focus on an interesting and lesser known member of the parsely family: bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria).
This plant appears to have been a botanical rock star during the Middle Ages in Europe serving both as a pot herb and as a cure against gout – hence another popular name for it, goutweed. At that time, bishop’s weed had a permanent place in monastic gardens along with other multitalented plants, but today it is found pretty much everywhere in Europe and it is considered invasive in some parts of North America. The young leaves are typically harvested in the spring and can be eaten in salads or, when picked later in the season, cooked like your favorite greens. The blooms and the small fruits are also edible, with all mentioned parts packing a nutritious combination of vitamins, minerals and protein. The plant is particularly rich in potassium, calcium, zinc, and vitamins A and C.
Bishop’s weed is found all over Berlin but it prefers wet and shady places. It tends to spread through its extensive rhizomes, hence it is typically found in colonies of varied sizes. One of its common German names is Geißfuß or goat’s foot, which seems to accurately describe the unique shape of the leaves. Water hemlock (Cicuta virosa) looks quite different from bishop’s weed, and one way to help tell the difference is the absolute lack of bracts in bishop’s weed and their presence in water hemlock.